Mar 25, 2005
By: JOHN PIESEN
The Kentucky Derby media polls arrived on my desk Monday morning at
Oaklawn Park, Hot Springs, Ark., and, sure enough, just like last year when
Smarty Jones was completely ignored up to Derby Day, the Oaklawn-based
runners were tossed out with the bathwater.
Of the dozen polls checked, nine -- that's right, nine -- had Sun King on top.
Obviously, I'm missing something here. Yes, I know he won the Tampa Bay Derby
last weekend by three lengths (earning a whopping 91 Beyer number).
I can't remember the last time the Tampa Bay Derby winner was received
with such enthusiasm by my colleagues in the press.
Oops. Sorry. I almost forgot. Sun King is trained by Nick Zito, the media's
best friend, and a two-time winner of the Kentucky Derby back in the early '90s.
But the thing is...I'm not sure quite how to say this, but if Sun King finishes
with 10 lengths of Rockport Harbor in the Kentucky Derby, I'll give up my
first-born. You know what? Sun King isn't even the best 3-year-old in the
Zito barn. Every rocket scientist I know will tell you that George Steinbrenner's
Bellamy Road is Saint Nick's best Derby prospect.
One other thing you need to remember about Sun King.
Sun King was an also-ran last Fall in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and, the last
I looked, nothing that came out of that race has run worth a dam.
Check it out. Wilco? Nowhere in the San Felipe. Roman Ruler? Nowhere in the
San Felipe. And, sorry to say, Afleet Alex was dead last in the Rebel, a sorry
situation after which it was discovered he raced with a lung infection.
Said one press box wag: "Lung infection? He must have caught the lung
infection somewhere between the half-mile pole and the quarter-pole!"
But if his people say Afleet Alex has a lung infection, that's good enough for me.
More importantly, it was good enough for jockey Velazquez, because his
agent, Angel Cordero Jr., called trainer Ritchey first thing Sunday morning, and
told Ritchey he (Velazquez) wants to ride Alex back in the Arkansas Derby.
What really hurt was that there was $500,000 bet to show on Alex in the
Rebel, and a buck-thirty on the other five horses. Some folks took a bath, but
the Mad Bomber assures me it wasn't him.
"I don't play ($100,000 a pop) to show when there are three good horses in
a race," he says, "...only when there's one."
The Rebel turned out to be pure Hollywood.
First of all, Rockport Harbor was late getting to the infield paddock, causing
rival trainers to get very upset. "If this were a claimer," said Bob Holthus,
the trainer of Greater Good, "they'd scratch the sonofagun."
Finally, when Rocky did appear, you would have thought it was the Kentucky Derby.
Trainer Servis, clad in a bright yellow sport jacket, led an entourage of
20-something people down the racetrack to the paddock, as the crowd
cheered. The only thing missing was the theme from Rocky.
Most folks thought that Team Rocky would be fined, but the stewards decided
no discipline was necessary. Obviously, they have a good sense of theater.
Actually, there were legitimate reasons for Rocky's tardiness.
When asked about it at my seminar the next morning at the beautiful
Longshot Saloon, jockey Elliott paused briefly, and then responded:
"Rocky wan't late. The other horses were early."
Personally, I believe Rocky was late -- contributing to a 20-minute delay -- because
trainer Servis -- to his credit -- was giving the national television audience
extra time to locate ESPNnews on their cable.
Anyway, back to the race.
Rocky was unprepared for the start. His head was turned sideays, and he
wasn't standing right with his head pointed down the track. As a result, he
stumbled badly first jump, then got whacked by Copy My Notes,
who, in an incredible piece of irony, was the winner's uncoupled stablemate.
What's next was out of Ripley. Rocky rushed right to the lead with a
Secretariat-like three-wide on the first turn, widened through a :23 second quarter,
and held on to the final yards when Greater Good, who had a perfect trip, nailed
him by a short half-length.
Give all the credit to Greater Good and his connections for winning the Rebel.
But there's no question Rocky, who was -- in his trainer's estimation -- a mere
65 per cent for the race, was the best horse...and he'll be a short price for
the $1 million Arkansas Derby.
I just read in Wednesday's Form that the Kentucky Derby is wide open, and that
the favorite will be no better than 8-1.
My view? Glad you asked. Rockport Harbor will win the Arkansas Derby by
daylight, and he'll go to the Kentucky Derby as the favorite at about 3-1.
In the meantime, I'm wondering why Greater Good doesn't get a look in the
media polls. After all, he now has won the two Arkansas stakes -- the Southwest
and the Rebel -- that Smarty did, beating better horses in the process. In case
you missed it, Munificence, who was second to Greater Good in the Southwest,
came back and won a stake at odds-on last weekend at Delta Downs.
Munificence is an interesting story himself. His trainer is Jim Hudson, the same
Jim Hudson who, as the strong safety for the New York Jets back in 1969,
made the Super Bowl-saving pick two days after his roomie, Joe Namath,
guaranteed the Jets would win.
Back to Afleet Alex for a minute. I have never been a proponent of taking off
talented no-name riders to put on name riders. The latest example is Afleet Alex.
Jeremy Rose was 5-2-0 in five starts on Afleet Alex. He was booted off for
Eclipse winner John Velazquez, who has never won a race at Oaklawn Park (0-10).
Boy, Johnny V. sure moved Alex up, didn't he?
Finally, trainer Servis not only will run the favorite in the Arkansas Derby, he
will run the favorite as well in the Fantasy, which will be run a day earlier on
In the century-old history of Oaklawn, no trainer has won the track's two
marquee races for 3-year-olds -- the Derby and the Fantasy -- in the same year
although many of tried, notably Lukas, McAnally and McGaughey.
Don't be surprised if Servis (and Elliott) get the double. Rose Pond won the
Honeybee here last Sunday by five in only the third start of her career. And
she was awesome.
Said rival trainer Sonny Wigginton: "Round Pond is an absolute freak. To make
the third start of her career against seasoned fillies from top barns...and to
mincemeat them the way she did, shows she's a freak."
Elliott, incidentally, is having so much fun and success in his season-plus at
Hot Springs, he plans to ride full-time here next year.
<< Back To Newsletter